Jurisprudence

Columbus’ Policing Problem Goes Deeper Than the Shooting of Andre Hill

A demonstrator standing in a crowd holds a sign condemning Officer Adam Coy
A press conference and candlelight vigil for Andre Hill outside the Brentnell Community Recreation Center in Columbus, Ohio, on Dec. 26. Stephen Zenner/AFP via Getty Images

On Monday evening, the Columbus Department of Public Safety announced it has fired the police officer who killed Andre Hill, an unarmed Black man, last week. The white Ohio officer, Adam Coy, was found to have used unreasonable force, failed to turn on his body camera, and declined to administer first aid after he shot Hill.

Coy was responding to a nonemergency call about a man sitting in his car, yet he showed up with his gun drawn. Hill, 47, was visiting a friend’s house and had stopped in the garage. Coy ordered him to come out of the garage, so Hill turned around and walked toward Coy with his phone in his hand. Though Coy didn’t turn on his camera until after the shooting, a 60-second playback feature captured the shooting without audio. That footage showed Coy shooting Hill within 10 seconds of approaching him. The other officer on the scene told investigators that she did not think Hill posed a threat.

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It was the city’s second police killing of a Black man in the span of a few weeks. A sheriff’s deputy who once said his job was to “hunt people” killed Casey Goodson Jr. outside his own home on Dec. 4, triggering nationwide protests. While Goodson’s death wasn’t captured on camera, the footage of Hill’s death was so transparently damning that within days, the mayor, City Council members, and the police chief had all called for Coy’s firing. “Officer Coy’s handling of this run is not a ‘rookie’ mistake as a result of negligence or inadvertence, but the decisions … and actions taken were reckless and deliberate,” police Chief Tom Quinlan wrote in his recommendation last week.

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Coy racked up a number of complaints alleging abuse over his years on the force. But he went largely unpunished until now. In one case in 2012, cruiser footage showed him slamming a man’s head repeatedly into the hood during a drunken driving arrest. The city paid out $45,000 in a civil rights settlement for that assault, according to the Columbus Dispatch, while Coy was suspended for 160 hours as a result.

But Coy is hardly the only officer in Columbus with a history of violence. There are many officers who have netted dozens of excessive force complaints while keeping their jobs; some have been promoted. Bureau of Justice statistics show Columbus police officers killed about three times more people than any other department in Ohio between 2013 and 2019. More than two-thirds of those people were Black, in a city that’s only 29 percent Black overall.

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This status quo has persisted despite evidence of pervasive misconduct and abuse within the city police force. Large protests erupted in 2016 after Officer Bryan Mason killed Tyre King, a 13-year-old Black boy who, according to an autopsy report requested by his family, was “more likely than not” running away when he was shot. Mason had already been implicated in 47 reports involving excessive force, the Appeal reported. He was never fired nor indicted for the shooting; the department’s initial response was to tweet a photo of a replica of a BB gun King was allegedly carrying at the time. More recently, one Columbus officer on the vice squad was indicted for forcing women to have sex with him under threat of arrest (he is separately facing charges for shooting and killing a woman while on the job). Several Black police officers have also blown the whistle on the agency’s culture of racism, retaliation, and bullying.

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It’s a culture that has deep roots. Back in 1999, the Department of Justice found the department had a pattern and practice of racial profiling, wrongful arrests, lying about civil rights violations, and excessive force. “The officers involved in misconduct many times have a history of complaints against them, and fail to report accurately to their superiors what transpired in the incident (changing the facts to portray the victim as responsible for the arrest, the use of force, and/or the search),” the DOJ report noted. The city responded to the DOJ lawsuit in 2002 by giving police officers more training on racial profiling and expanding the internal affairs bureau’s ability to investigate misconduct. But the nature of the complaints—allegations of racial discrimination and false arrests—have remained remarkably similar.

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Part of the problem is that the police union has historically stood in the way of even modest reforms; under the collective bargaining agreement, the city can’t even suspend an officer unless it clears a high bar. But the city is now trying again. Over the protests of the police union, Columbus voters overwhelmingly approved a measure in November to create a civilian review board and inspector general to investigate the police. The independent watchdog agency is modeled after similar boards in cities like Baltimore and New York, which have had mixed results. Mayor Andrew Ginther shut the police union out of the working group that structured the civilian review board, but the city will likely still need to negotiate the scope of the board’s power with the union.

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“I think law enforcement’s perspective is very important, but the FOP is not running this process,” Ginther said in July. “They’re not in charge; they’re not calling the shots anymore about how we police.”

The mayor has also proposed cutting funding for the police, which makes up one-third of the city’s entire budget, and allocating funds to hire mental health and social workers instead.

But even just keeping Coy off the force might prove difficult in the long run. He has the right to appeal the decision through union arbitration, and no criminal charges have been filed against him yet. According to an investigation by WOSU, the Columbus public radio station, several other Columbus police officers have been rehired in recent years after appealing their firing. It’s a problem that’s plagued police departments across the country.

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We’re likely to see more high-profile firings as politicians respond to this year’s sustained Black Lives Matter protests. President-elect Joe Biden has called for modest policing reforms targeting the “bad apples” in departments. Purging officers like Coy from the force is a commonsense first step. But it won’t fix American policing. Even when local leaders and police chiefs call for reform, they face entrenched roadblocks, if not open revolt. Columbus is among the many American cities that have been tinkering around the edges of their police forces for decades with little to show for their efforts. Real change can’t happen until we move from simply punishing officers like Coy for shooting an unarmed Black man to keeping them from being there in the first place.

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